ROME — Christians in the Middle East would gladly welcome a visit by Pope Francis, but at the end of the day, what they really want are facts on the ground that would allow them to feel safe in their own homeland, according to one of the region’s top Catholic leaders.
“Visiting, fine, but why? We would be very happy to host the Holy Father, but we want facts that can reassure our people,” said Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan, spiritual leader of the world’s 200,000 Syriac Catholics.
Younan, who was in Rome on Thursday for the presentation of a project to raise awareness about persecuted Christians called Stand Together, also said that the Vatican’s diplomatic service is working to protect Christians in the Middle East but “it’s not enough.”
When he was in Rome in 2015, participating in a Synod of Bishops on the Family, the patriarch allegedly asked the Vatican to organize a meeting including the foreign ministers of the world’s most powerful countries, of which he named the United States, Russia and China, together with the United Nations’ secretary general, to define a common policy regarding the Middle East.
“We want to say to them: All of our Christian communities that have their origins in that part of the world are facing extinction, you have to do something, and please, stop serving your own interests,” Younan told reporters. “But nothing has been done [by the Holy See].”
Speaking about the situation of Christians in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the patriarch acknowledged that if he had children, he too would be trying to flee the region, despite the efforts being done by the Syriac church, which include guaranteeing that refugees have a roof over their heads, not just a tent.
In recent years, Catholic institutions have built schools, mobile clinics and even churches to restore the sense of community among the faithful.
However, the situation for the remaining Christians is bad and the prospect grim. Many have fled to Lebanon, where there’s no law protecting refugees. This means that beyond being denied any sort of public aid, they have no papers, are deported if arrested and children have no access to education beyond the one provided by aid agencies, including the Church.
“If they want to flee their countries it’s because they’re threatened, persecuted or have literally lost it all,” Younan said, appealing for a common response from the international community instead of having individual countries negotiating foreign aid to have more advantages.
He also called for Western countries to drop the paternalistic attitude of “Oh yes, they cannot progress, let’s accept them as they are.”
The patriarch said that despite understanding the faithful’s reasons for wanting to flee, convincing them to return to their native lands is also among his biggest concerns, particularly the youth.
“We hope that peace, reconciliation and stability will soon return,” Younan said. “The problem is that there are geopolitical agendas that don’t agree, and our youth are losing the virtue of hope.”
Some 100,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee to the Kurdistan region in the north in the summer of 2014, where they are languishing in expectation of a return that never comes.
Three months ago, Younan visited the Nineveh Plains, an Iraqi region where many of the Christian villages flourished before ISIS arrived. The area has now been freed, but half of the houses were burnt down, which according to Younan only happened in the Christian-majority villages.
“It was a way of telling us not to go back, because we’re not wanted there,” he said.
Asked about Christians becoming leaders in the Middle East, capable of changing their own situation, Younan said it’s not possible because they’re only small minorities.
In Iraq, less than one percent of the population today is Christian, while during the regime of Saddam Hussein they represented more than five percent. In Syria, they’ve gone from 19 percent in the 1950s to less than six percent today.
In Egypt, Younan noted, there are between eight to 10 million Coptic Christians, in a population of 80 million people. Yet they can only get Christian representatives in Congress because there’s a quota for minorities.
“We seek to live in peace with others, but we need stronger intervention from the family of nations to tell these people ‘We’re living in the 21st century, not the seventh’,” he told reporters, insisting that there has to be a common approach from the international community.
He also said that on the ground, relations between Christian and Muslim religious leaders is good, but at a political-diplomatic level there’s a “fanaticism.”
“We get together, we talk in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria, but we cannot do anything more, because we’re oppressed by a fundamentalist radical Islam that receives funding,” he said.
Asked about the pope’s comments on no religion being terrorist and how that compares to his experience with Islam on the ground, Younan said that it’s up to them to prove it, not for him or the pope to say it.
“Stand Together” is a platform launched by the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, Amici Rome Reports, Fundación Promoción Social de la Cultura, and ISCOM. Its aim is to spread the testimony of religious minorities, Christians and others, who live in dire circumstances.
Also participating in Thursday’s presentation was Dominique de la Rochefoucauld-Montbel, Grand Hospitaller of the Order of Malta.
In his brief remarks as part of a panel with Younan and two speakers for Stand Together, Rochefoucauld said the order had decided to join because “we need to have a high level of solidarity.”
The Order of Malta, he said, has been involved in this region of the Middle East for many years “and we have seen the transformation due to conflicts, despair, hatred, and at the end there are a number of Christians that are leaving. Even if we can provide jobs, good education…now children are leaving.”